Monday, September 17, 2012

Running on empty?

The Kite Runner feels as if it's in the dark politically.  Photos by Andrew Brilliant.
Watching The Kite Runner (through September 30 at the New Rep), you can almost taste the good intentions of every one involved.

But you can also sense the sweet savor of sentiment, and the aroma of commercial compromise.
On the one hand, the production represents a worthy attempt by this erstwhile theatre - which is embarking on a new era under the leadership of BU's Jim Petosa - to get beyond its political comfort zone, which is generally bounded (as is the case with most every theatre) by Martin Luther King, second-wave feminism, and, you know, "the gays."  Not that there's anything wrong with that - still, as someone once said, there's a world outside of Yonkers, and it's time the New Rep got out there, as ArtsEmerson, Merrimack Rep, and even the Huntington (to some degree) have managed to do.

So three cheers for programming a show like The Kite Runner, which is set largely in Afghanistan. The New Rep's core audience, however, is superficially liberal but deeply conservative, and aligned with Israel politically (a bare-bones production of My Name is Rachel Corrie proved divisive just a few years ago).  You'd think, then, that setting a production anywhere near the Middle East, much less in Afghanistan - nexus of so many failed imperial gambits by various superpowers, and of course Osama bin Laden's crib for years - would be folly.

But you'd be wrong, for The Kite Runner has been carefully calibrated to minimize these concerns.  On its surface it seems to engage with the recent history of Afghanistan - the collapse of its brief "republic," the ensuing coups and killings, the Soviet invasion, the U.S.-sponsored resistance to that invasion (which led to the rise of the Islamist mujaheddin, and, of course, bin Laden) - there is much, much to chew on here; Brecht himself probably couldn't do it justice.

And lord knows novelist Khaled Hosseini can't.  Okay, hold on - maybe that's unfair; I haven't read the original novel, and perhaps there's more honest engagement with history in its pages.  But in Matthew Spangler's ardent but blank dramatic synopsis, the turmoil in Afghanistan feels like little more than an exotic backdrop from which various villains can twirl their mustaches (if not their turbans).  Evil and cruelty lurk here (while the United States is portrayed as a happy consumer paradise) but alas, little moral or political complexity.  Even though there were hidden links, of course, between the two societies during this period - which would play out most spectacularly on 9/11; but you'd never guess any of that from Hosseini's account.

Okay, you could argue Hosseini could be cut some slack on this score - for much of its length, his tale is a child's fable (indeed, at times it plays like To Kill an Afghan Mockingbird crossed with Oliver Twist), and so it trades in the familiar tropes of bullies and childhood dangers, of barely-understood political storms and sudden escapes by night.  The trouble is, half the script is a tale of vexed adulthood - and it's all told in grown-up flashback (with none of the convincing childhood ventriloquy of Mockingbird, much less the satirical edge of Twist, both of which effectively limned the political tenor of their respective times).

And just as the text has been stripped of any and all troubling political and cultural contexts, its lead narrator, Amir (Nael Nacer) has likewise been washed clean of any foreign depth or texture.  He's a character with almost no character, in fact, save one or two tent pole emotions like "GUILT," and his story of redemption is thus a generic one.  Oh, sure, it's an "epic journey" all right - but everyone knows that's just theatre-speak for "a liberal melodrama that lasts more than two hours."

Still, even shorn of any political significance, I think Hosseini's conceit could work as drama - if adaptor Spangler had drawn us into his narrator's mind and heart, and conjured some dialogue (even internal dialogue) over why, in a moment of cowardice, the young Amir betrayed his best friend Hassan to a vicious gang of thugs (as a result, the poor boy was raped - Hosseini lays it on pretty thick).  Or perhaps if Hassan had then developed into something more than a sweet, forgiving Christ-figure - a kind of Jesus of Kabul - the script might have gained some sort of thematic or psychological traction.

But no such luck.  Instead we're led by the hand through competently rendered, but all-too-familiar, epic-journey clichés (some of which are almost amusingly shameless - not only do we get the showdown-between-good-and-evil, but even the last-minute-suicide!). Meanwhile Nael Nacer - who hasn't had much luck in his recent roles, it seems to me - is forced to dash about the stage in a constant mode of heightened concern, explaining everything and trying to keep us engaged.  Alas, somehow director Elaine Vaan Hogue is of little help on this score - her staging, like the script, is competent, but little more, and she doesn't conjure much magic from key scenes like the central kite fight (below), either.  What kick the show does have largely comes from Robert Najarian's convincingly-designed violence (which is often nastily believable).

The climactic kite fight.

Yet oddly, while the central performances are only so-so, there's a good deal of life around the edges of the production, as several young performers shine in supporting roles.  Luke Murtha, for instance, has become known for stealing scenes along the fringe; now, in his first outing on a larger stage, he steals the whole production right out from under his Equity co-stars, with a heart-breaking turn as Hassan.  Meanwhile another fringe player, Johnnie McQuarley, whose hamming basically drove me crazy in Romeo and Juliet and Troilus and Cressida, settles down into a surprisingly confident, low-key command as Hassan's father.  And newcomer Paige Clark, also far too broad in her recent outings, was likewise appropriately scaled and insightful in several roles.

So perhaps if Vaan Hogue isn't an artful dodger of dramatic traps, she's still a skillful acting teacher - or were these young performers inspired by Christine Hamel's convincing (at least to these ears) dialect coaching?  I don't know, but I should note several subtle cameos from veterans Scott Fortier and Dale Place, too. I suppose I must add that unfortunately none of these folks made believable Afghanis - but let's not go there, that way madness lies! Indeed, the surprise performance of the production was by someone who couldn't have looked more out of place in Kabul if he tried - young John Zdrojeski I believe has only just graduated from BU (from which I imagine Mr. Petosa has installed a kind of young-actors' pipeline), but already he's clearly capable of an intriguing professional performance, even as a villain who does everything but kick the dog.  I expect to hear more from Mr. Zdrojeski, and soon.

Sigh.  And now comes time for one of my perennial laments - would all these performers had a great text to sink their teeth into!  But they don't; they've only got Spangler's and Hosseini's synthetic Dickens.  Oh, well - what can I say?  At least it's an epic journey.

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